You are probably familiar with the Monument to the Great Fire of London, next to Pudding Lane and near the north end of London Bridge. But a closer look at the images and messages it conveys tell us a lot about how a new-ish regime, very anxious to boost public support, sought to trumpet its ability to bounce back from such a calamity. Sound familiar?
You might think the Monument is in a slightly odd place, off the main access to London Bridge and somewhat tucked away. But from Roman through medieval times (indeed up to the 1830’s) the main route up into the City from London Bridge went right past it: making this Monument “billboard” about the most viewed advertising hoarding in the world.
And what was advertised? King Charles in full Roman Emperor battle attire, coming to the rescue of a fainting and distressed London (the collapsed woman with a “mural crown” (connoting city walls). The poor little Dragon (symbol of the City) looks relieved.
On the southern side there is a very lengthy Latin inscription setting out in surprisingly tangible, practical detail what Charles claimed to have brought about. Why in this form? He is directly aping Augustus (an actual Roman Emperor) who set up similar inscriptions listing his “Res Gestae” (“Achievements”) throughout the Empire. And he wants to draw the parallel because Augustus brought peace after Civil Wars (like Charles at his Restoration) and boasted that he “found Rome built of brick and left if of marble”.
To be fair, the Stuart regime in many ways did a very good job of “building back better”. The inscription lists many rapid and practical steps taken to help the people and the City: rebuilding houses to standard, fire-resistant designs, remitting taxes, cleaning sewers, widening and levelling streets and market places, raising via a coal tax the huge sums required to rebuild churches (c.87 had been damaged or destroyed). “Fire Courts” were set up which cleared the massive backlog of property ownership and rent disputes with extraordinary speed and equity: you suspect they would have sorted out the issues around dangerous cladding (post-Grenfell) by now.
There was a particular need for the regime was keen to bolster public confidence at the time of construction: in addition to the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire, in 1667 the Dutch had tweaked the nose of the nation (and the Navy) by sailing up the Thames and into the Royal dockyards at Chatham: there they captured the “Royal Charles”, the King’s flagship which had brought him back from exile (the royal arms from it are still on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam).
All of which makes me think about how the current Government is keen to tell us how it is “building back better”…and I am not sure the comparison flatters today’s authorities…
Still, given Boris’ predilection for Roman allusions and far-fetched construction, can we rule out the erection of a post-Brexit/Covid celebratory monument to “Emperor Boris” (or as “Orbis Rex”, as depicted in Armando Iannucci’s hilarious and coruscating epic poem “Pandemonium“).
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